Climate change is conditioning us to accept natural disasters as “the new normal.”
In the aftermath of flooding in and around Baton Rouge that began two weeks ago, 13 people have lost their lives. The deluge has destroyed or seriously damaged more than 60,000 homes, and so far more than 100,000 residents have registered for federal assistance. That last statistic certainly factored into one recent estimate that put flood-related losses at upwards of $20 billion. Nearly one-third of Louisiana has been declared a disaster area. (President Obama visited the state on Tuesday.)
It’s being called the worst natural disaster the country has seen since Hurricane Sandy. And yet—as many have already noted—one of the most remarkable aspects of the calamity is how scant the coverage has been relative to other “major” stories dominating the news cycle over the past two weeks. While flood victims need much, much more than publicity at the moment, their indignation isn’t misplaced. If you were forced to wallow through waist-deep water, all the while trying to avoid snakes and alligators and floating coffins, you, too, might wonder why reports of Donald Trump’s campaign staff shakeups or Ryan Lochte’s drunken exploits were knocking your story off the front page or the evening news.
I suppose the culprit here could be classism, or disaster fatigue, or even the peculiar provincialism of so-called coastal media elites. All have been cited as possible explanations for the difference between how the media have covered other natural disasters and how they’re covering Louisiana. But I worry that it’s none of these—and that the real explanation for this discrepancy, while less offensive on its face, says something deeply troubling about the way that we’re collectively processing the horrors of climate change.
What if this sort of disaster just doesn’t feel like news anymore?
Psychologists have a word for this: desensitization. Put simply, the more we’re exposed to a negative stimulus, the weaker our emotional response to that stimulus becomes over time. Desensitization is what allows a professional window washer to do his job on the 43rd floor of an office building without panicking, or a surgeon to deal with blood and internal organs all day without feeling queasy.
We want and need certain individuals to achieve a level of desensitization for the work they do, and there’s plenty of evidence to show that desensitization therapy is highly effective in treating phobias and other anxiety-based disorders. But when an entire culture becomes inured to a negative stimulus, it’s usually cause for alarm. One measure of a society’s health is its capacity to be shocked by violence, injustice, or depictions of human misery.
Natural disasters deserve to be on that list, too—but climate change is now threatening to push them off and relegate them to our societal list of Unpleasant Yet Inevitable Everyday Occurrences. By now, we all should understand that climate change has the unique power to increase both the frequency and the intensity of extreme weather events such as flooding, hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts. But in the past few years, it has become clear that we’re starting to absorb this truth so thoroughly that we now accept disasters, and the misery they cause, as “the new normal.” And that’s risky.
Consider that during the same week Louisianans were reeling from epochal flooding, Californians were suffering (as they continue to suffer) through one of the most devastating wildfire seasons in recent history. In both places, lives were lost, homes and businesses were destroyed, and billions of dollars in value disappeared overnight. And in both places, climate change is implicated. That these simultaneous tragedies were linked by a common denominator ought to have made climate change the most trending, most shared, most e-mailed story in America last week.
Assuming you don’t live in Louisiana or California, how big a story was it in your local paper or your news feed?
Those of us who accept the science of climate change tend to think of the skeptics and climate deniers as our chief antagonists. But what if there exists a more formidable enemy out there—one made even more dangerous by the fact that it resides within us? What if our own melancholy resignation turns out to be an even bigger obstacle to climate action than the concerted efforts of an organized movement dedicated to denial?
In a therapeutic setting, desensitization can help patients overcome hindering fears and get on with their lives. But in a societal setting, it’s cultural poison. It strips us of our agency and replaces our sense of shared responsibility with fatalistic dread. And with enough time, that dread diffuses and mellows into something like complacency.
Our news feeds last week weren’t all about Donald Trump and Ryan Lochte, though. We were also presented with the heart-rending image of Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old Syrian boy whose soot-covered body, bloody face, and expressionless gaze moved so many of us to tears. Witnessing him in the back of that ambulance, very clearly in shock and miraculously alive after an air strike destroyed his home, we were jarred out of our complacency—reminded once again of a horrible, lingering war that we hadn’t forgotten, exactly, but that many of us had chosen to place on a psychic back burner.
We hated looking at Omran, but we needed to see him. It de-desensitized us.
We need to be seeing more photos of Louisiana and California right now, too—and we need to be talking about what’s happening in these places, and why. Not simply because it’s newsworthy, although it most certainly is. We need to be talking about it so that it never, ever is allowed to become the new normal. Because it’s not normal.
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